Editorial - With the oddballs off-limits, free schools are beginning to look distinctly normal

20th May 2011 at 01:00

This week The TES received unexpected news. "As God's servants, we feel a great responsibility to warn you that May 21, 2011 will be the day when God comes for His people, and is also the appointed Day of Judgment," the email said. Best cancel plans for the weekend, then.

With their laughably apocalyptic forbodings, religious activists inevitably generate their own special kind of publicity. That they are Class-A Bonkers only adds to their allure for the freak-show fan that lurks in us all. Just ask Louis Theroux.

With this in mind, the Government's decision to ban creationists from running free schools is to be welcomed (page 6) and banishes fears that religious zealots are going to be given free rein over our children. It is also worth noting that civil servants have already quietly turned down the overwhelming majority of the groups that have applied.

So if the oddballs aren't going to dominate these schools, who is? It turns out that most of them (excluding the Toby Young fraternity) are going to be operated by academy chains like E-Act and Ark. The Big Society, it seems, looks at the technicalities of school leadership and governorship and, for the most part, decides that it is going to have to buy in the professionals. These organisations are largely staffed by ex-heads, ex-local authority officers and ex-teachers. People rather like you.

Then there is the question of who is encouraging parental groups to enter this bureaucratic minefield in the first place. It turns out it is not just a gang of Cameroons using cattle prods to herd their Notting Hill chums into putting in applications. There is growing evidence that a fair few free school proposals are being quietly backed by local authorities, many of them inner-city councils. Admittedly, they are being forced into this by rising pupil demand and the fact that Michael Gove only offers financial support to new schools if they're academies or free schools. But it is still a local backing of sorts.

Critics continue to fret about the powers given to free schools over curriculum and teachers' pay, the same as those "enjoyed" by academies. But research suggests that this isn't as revolutionary as it might seem as academy heads and governors, who already have these freedoms, tend not to use them.

There remains one area of deep concern, however - the lack of a coherent line of accountability. It is to be hoped that Mr Gove turns his celebrated brain to the issue of who is going to oversee the free schools and generates a decent answer. It is long overdue.

Nonetheless, it is very unlikely that these schools will prove to be either the face of evil or some kind of educational silver bullet. In fact, it is just possible that they will have a strong resemblance to the ones where you work.

Gerard Kelly is away.

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